Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney

Soho Rep is making quite a name for itself on shows that have titles so long I forget what I am talking about half way through talking about them (lest we not forget We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, which I did not get to see and am sad about). Even so, Lucas Hnath's new show, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, directed by Soho Rep artistic director Sarah Benson, is worth seeking out even if the ultimate product might be somewhat less epic than the title.

Ultimately it is an experimental and deconstructed black comedy about the dictatorship of Walt Disney, using the format of a public reading of an autobiographical screenplay where Disney plays himself. In this way we see his delusional celebration of his own character and legend. Undermining his public persona as the father of family entertainment, we are shown a vision of Disney's cruel and ego-maniacal behind-the-scenes personality. He manipulates and controls all aspects of the reading. From sound to lighting to the lines he expects others to say, everything is taken into account in his screenplay environment. But the drama lies in that we see him telling his own story and critically where the story and his control slip away from him.

As he gets sicker and closer to death his synchronicity with others leaves him. Where we may have heard his brother finishing sentences for him at the beginning, later we see outright dissent and disagreement. Whether Walt can hear that discord is questionable. Disney's attempts to force his will upon others stops working. It's a creative and unusual storytelling approach but the core idea for me felt very thin—more a fascinating and inventive way to create a character portrait but not a fully formed play. The experimentation with language and format and Larry Pine's performance all make it well worth seeing. Thankfully at 75 minutes it doesn't overstay it's welcome.

Larry Pine as Walt Disney and Frank Wood as Roy Disney carry the material showing the evolution of the brothers' relationship from partners to adversaries. Pine's maniacal laughter and trenchant reading of Disney's fans (including Mussolini) make this material darkly comedic. But I felt other moments where comedy may have existed on the page it did not come out in performance or production. Enriching the production was the nice use of sleight of hand to add to Walt's slipping "absolute" control. Illusions were employed to surprise him or deny him the story he wishes to tell.

Amanda Quaid plays Disney's daughter and Brian Sgambati his son-in-law round out the solid cast.

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